Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Personal Update

Dear friends and family,

I was up very early this morning. Woke up thinking about how to pay the mortgage on what may be our uninhabitable house, especially with Lillie quite possibly jobless. As a real estate lawyer, her job depends on people investing in new developments in New Orleans, an occupation with very uncertain prospects.

The longer the high waters stay in New Orleans, the more structural damage there’ll be to the houses. In a way, the best scenario may be that houses are declared complete write offs. What I really worry about is that insurance companies will deem houses “habitable” but the city itself will be uninhabitable. I’m not sure what happens then.

We’re fortunate in that we have both home insurance and flood insurance. Here, home insurance doesn’t cover floods, so you must buy the extra coverage. While many people have flood coverage because you can’t get a mortgage in many areas of the city without it, there are plenty of people without.

This is all up in the air, because no-one will be able to make a claim until they’ve established that their house is damaged. To do that, we have to get back to our houses. Currently, we’re being told we won’t be allowed back home for at least a month, if things go well. (Scratch that: the mayor just said he believes it will be 3 – 4 months). People may be allowed to go in briefly to get clothes and essentials, but as the current estimates for clearing water from the city are one to two weeks if they can plug the 17th Street Canal breach, no-one’s sure if/when these quick visits will occur.

I’ve finally seen a photo of the 17th Street Canal breach. It’s 200 feet long, about 500 feet away from the bridge over the Old Hammond Highway. That puts it about ¼ mile from our house. I haven’t seen video footage of the breach, but I did see video of the breach on the Industrial Canal in New Orleans East. When I saw the footage, at first I couldn’t tell where the lake and the canal ended and the surrounding neighbourhood started. The breach was evident from the rush of water, as if there were rapids.

The level of water in Lake Ponchartrain (one of the largest lakes in North America) has now gone down by 2 feet; all of that water has gone into the city. The Twin Spans (an incredibly long, low bridge across Lake Ponchartrain) has lost 40% of its segments.

Trying to get my head around this is extremely difficult. We hear huge things: the coastline of Louisiana has been changed and the mouth of the Mississippi has moved from Venice to Empire (two towns at the tip of Louisiana). And then we hear little things: a shark was spotted swimming down a street in Metairie (just a little west of our house). Both are mind boggling.

The scope of the disaster keeps unfolding. They say between 10,000 and 20,000 people have been pulled from roofs now (up from initial estimates of 1200 people stranded on roofs). The confirmed deaths is 5; no official tally is being kept at all. That’s because body counting is simply not a priority; everyone’s still focused on saving people. It’s estimated petrol prices may double in the next few months and the grain industry is under threat because much of the grain passes through the port of New Orleans, which is no longer functioning.

flood sceneWWLTV has a very good series of photos available.

It’s bizarre how beautiful many of the shots look, until you remind yourself what it all means. Slides #22-26 show the 17th Street Canal breach. If you look at #25 (right), it’s a view looking south, from Lake Ponchartrain (out of the picture, at the bottom) towards the city and the Mississippi (out of the picutre, at the top). You can see all the debris from the lake piled up on the north side of the Hammond Highway Bridge (which they had just spent millions on, making it flood proof, and clearly it worked because the breach didn’t happen there). On the right is an area called Bucktown, full of wonderful seafood shops. It looks dry in this photo, but it was eventually inundated. On the left is our neighbourhood, Lakeview (we call it Fauxview, because it’s “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Lakeview, with lower property values). Our house is out of the picture to the top left, about two more blocks to the east.

For me, the shock is starting to subside and I’m starting to feel it all more. It’s pretty tough. Strange things set me off: this morning it was an email from one of the organisations I support, asking people to donate to the Red Cross and a couple of other organisations to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. It was so weird to realise that’s me.

Rose Vines